Ah, Camp Coffee—How to Brew it up Right

Words and photos by James Roh

I remember it like it was yesterday. Sitting outside a gas station one morning, somewhere in northern California, I took a sip of hot coffee and was instantly smitten: This coffee, I thought, is so good. I was halfway through a self-supported bike tour from Vancouver to Tijuana and had been sustaining a steady diet of instant coffee most mornings to get going. How low had my standards gotten that this gas station coffee was that good? I mean, as far as I was concerned, this gas station was a fanciful cafe in the heart of Paris and the Styrofoam cup contained the world’s finest espresso brewed by God himself.

Looking back, I’m slightly embarrassed. Just because I was making and drinking my coffee outside didn’t mean I had to lower my standards that much. But don’t worry, I’m a changed man these days. You see, there are so many ways to prepare coffee in the outdoors that, unless you’re an ultralight backpacking fanatic, instant coffee is borderline inexcusable. So let me cut to the chase—here are some techniques for the perfect camp coffee.

“Regardless, there’s a decent chance you’ll end up chewing on the grounds, so be ready for a good caffeine boost and a speckled smile.”

Cowboy Coffee

Simplicity complemented with a healthy dose of “mouth feel.” There are a handful of ways to concoct this brew but the basic gist is to pour hot water in a cup with coffee grounds, let it steep, settle, and then go for it. You can also pour cold water at the last minute to help settle the floaters. Regardless, there’s a decent chance you’ll end up chewing on the grounds, so be ready for a good caffeine boost and a speckled smile.

Pour Over

Another simple, albeit messy, lightweight option for getting your fix. Slowly pour hot water through a net or filter holding the grounds and into your cup below. Critics claim that if the net gets clogged, it can result in cold and/or weak coffee. In my humble opinion, just make sure the water is damn hot, the coffee is medium ground, and don’t be stingy with the bean dust. Problem solved. Be forewarned, though, the resulting wet grounds can be a bit obnoxious to clean up at times. I recommend dumping it into a bag and then pouring water the reverse way through the net to remove most of the goop. If you have time, leave it in the sun to dry. Or don’t and just deal with it. Either way, these pour overs are incredibly packable and brew a nice cup of coffee in the backcountry.

Ah, Camp Coffee—How to Brew it up Right
Preparing the perfect pour over.

French Press

Many coffee snobs argue that the French press is the best way to make coffee, and I’m certainly not one to argue. However, bringing a glass French press from home isn’t the most, say, “durable” idea. Lucky for us, companies like GSI Outdoors have our backs. Camping mugs of various sizes with a built-in French press allow you to, well, French press coffee while camping. Personally, I use the 50oz version while car camping with friends. It’s huge and looks more suitable for a pitcher of lemonade, but when you have at least three coffee drinkers in your group, it makes a lot of sense (and coffee). It works just like a regular French press but with bigger portions. Another unforeseen benefit of this bazooka-sized contraption is how much time it saves everyone, especially when you have people who claim “they’re useless until they’ve had their morning coffee.” You know the type. Nevertheless, two thumbs up for French pressing in the outdoors.

Portable Espresso Maker

Really, GSI? A portable espresso maker? Yep. And it’s awesome. Proponents of cowboy coffee might consider this a bit excessive, while coffee aficionados give their seal of approval. Regardless of which side you’re on, it’s generally agreed that an espresso or three tastes mighty fine in the morning. It’s a bit heavy, so don’t expect this to hit the trail with you, but if you’re car camping, let it rip! Heads up, though, it’s been known to spurt out hot coffee when it’s going full speed—so be careful. Luckily, after a few times, you can figure out how to control it without burning your hands. For bonus points, heat up some water to make an Americano. That’s some fine living right there. Also in this category are the classic percolators.

Ah, Camp Coffee—How to Brew it up Right
Backcountry espresso? Yes, please.

Final Thoughts

Just because you’re among trees, streams, and dirt doesn’t mean you have to forgo a quality cup of java. Whether it’s used as a motivation to get out of your sleeping bag or as a boost at the start of a hike, coffee simply goes hand in hand with being outside. Just remember to pack out the grounds and bring enough coffee to share with your friends. After all, you wouldn’t want them to suffer through instant coffee, would you?

Ah, Camp Coffee—How to Brew it up Right
Pro tip: Stick with those who bring you coffee in bed.